Research on Human Honesty

New research from Science: “Civic honesty around the globe“:

Abstract: Civic honesty is essential to social capital and economic development, but is often in conflict with material self-interest. We examine the trade-off between honesty and self-interest using field experiments in 355 cities spanning 40 countries around the globe. We turned in over 17,000 lost wallets with varying amounts of money at public and private institutions, and measured whether recipients contacted the owner to return the wallets. In virtually all countries citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained more money. Both non-experts and professional economists were unable to predict this result. Additional data suggest our main findings can be explained by a combination of altruistic concerns and an aversion to viewing oneself as a thief, which increase with the material benefits of dishonesty.

I am surprised, too.

Posted on July 5, 2019 at 6:15 AM25 Comments


Godfree Roberts July 5, 2019 7:13 AM

Alas, the experiment was culture blind.

The transparent ‘wallet’ contained an email address and success/honesty was measured by how many were returned to the institutions where they were ‘lost’.

China, intra-community trust as high as Sweden’s (and for the same cultural reasons), does not use email and no Chinese would return a lost item to anywhere but the block police box.

I’m sure folks familiar with other cultures can identify anomalies.

Winter July 5, 2019 7:26 AM

“I am surprised, too.”

I am not. Without a large majority of altruistic and honest people, society would collapse. There will be differences between societies, but the larger a society, the more “civilized” its members must be to keep the things running.

TS July 5, 2019 7:40 AM

I’d be more inclined on the reverse.

If it contained a ton of money, i’d rather keep it, as it appears you’re a rich person,. you won’t miss a few grand, while it certainly helps me a lot.

If it’s nearly empty, it still contains your important cards and IDs, i’d like to know I helped a fellow poor man get his important cards back.

Claude July 5, 2019 7:41 AM

I think people are fundamentally good. Most people get the opposite impression because the minority of bad people get the press. Somebody returning a lost wallet doesn’t normally get in the news.

Petre Peter July 5, 2019 8:11 AM

Because the cash was in a wallet that contained contact information, it was no longer anonymous. If the cash was anonymous [placed in the street] then i believe there would be significantly less returns. The excuse being that the police won’t be able to find the owner either.

Douh July 5, 2019 8:26 AM

Years ago I pinned a $5 to my company car’s antenna. I drove and parked in places between Detroit, Cleveland,and Pittsburgh. It stayed there for months.

In high school one of our classes put a quarter on a plainly visible surface. Most people thought it would disappear the first day. As I recall, it lasted weeks.

Most people are honest most of the time. This study does not surprise me at all.

Givon Zirkind July 5, 2019 8:40 AM

@Peter — well if there is no identifying info, to whom are you supposed to return it? You could post a sign asking if anyone lost money.

This tidbit butresses the observation, that “We favor the favored and take advantage of the disadvantaged.” Some little guy losses his wallet, big deal. It’s only $10- and who cares about him. But some upper crust dude loses his wallet, you have to help him. Maybe you’ll get a reward. You’ll get to rub elbows with a high up muck-a-muck. Curry a favor. Cynical? Yes. But realistic.

Harmless Drudge July 5, 2019 8:58 AM

Separately, I have read that a wallet with a baby photo is more likely to be returned. I think it suggest something about empathy, but I presume a lot would depend on the age of the finder.

Success to the successful July 5, 2019 9:16 AM

@Givon Zirkind @Peter
I wondered the same initially, but the amount of cash left in the wallet is in the “little guy” range ($13.45). Even the BigMoney scenario they ran in the USA, UK and Poland involved $94.15, which doesn’t appear large enough to invoke images of a high roller in these economies. I thought the change (45 and 15 cents) left in the wallet was a nice touch in this regard.

“Success to the successful” structures are real, to be sure. But this experiment doesn’t seem to fit neatly here. Wonder if the researchers collected any data from those who returned the wallets on their reasons for doing so.

Paulo Marques July 5, 2019 9:28 AM


I think the instinct to return is the opposite. If you’re empathetic to the other person, you’re projecting what it would mean to you. A high value might be from a richer person, but it would certainly suck if it was from someone like you. On the other hand, you’d just pocket the small change, even though it might’ve really been someone’s lunch money.
I’m not that surprised about the positive altruistic results, though, even if when it was me I lost the money. It was a Schneier article (because reading the book is work, or some lame excuse. sorry) that pointed out that there couldn’t be a society if people hadn’t evolved to be mostly altruistic.

jm July 5, 2019 9:43 AM

@Success Indeed, even in the central Europe, 100 bucks evoke a Joe Schmoe, who just happened to withdraw the money from an ATM a while ago.

Impossibly Stupid July 5, 2019 10:45 AM

Research on Human Honesty

I really don’t think this study says much about humans (or economics or civics or anything else mentioned) at all. I’d argue that the setup is flawed by the condition “turned in . . . at public and private institutions”. By doing that, you introduce all sorts of confounding factors that come with corporate policies and behaviors based on professionalism.

For example, it might simply be standard practice to drop most things into “lost and found” and wait for someone to come claim it. Beyond a certain value, though, it might make sense to spend valuable employee time trying to track down the owner. It’d be done because it reflects well on the corporation; the employee (in most cultures I’m aware of) should not for one second expect that they’ll get a reward from the owner of a found item, wallet or otherwise. Either way, you don’t just assume someone is being “dishonest” because you’re not contacted.

Likewise, they should absolutely have expected a 98% monetary return for those who contacted them. Again, the economics of “feels like stealing” have a completely different baseline when the consequences of actual dishonesty can result in the loss of your job. Especially these days, as readers of this blog surely know, when cameras are increasingly in public spaces and corporations do security monitoring of all kinds (including, perhaps, even operational stings/tests that may be very similar to this experiment).

The better assumption is that there’s an “uncanny valley” when it comes to job-related theft: things of lesser value go missing constantly, and then it drops off as the theft becomes less petty, shooting back up again when the value of the items that can be taken well exceeds the pay of the job. The fact that “non-experts and professional economists were unable to predict this result” just means that a lot of people don’t think very hard about how reality works.

Mike July 5, 2019 11:46 AM

My interpretation isn’t about being a thief.
With small amounts of money in the wallet, it’s not worth the work to return it. The owner might not even bother coming and picking it up if you contacted them.

With larger amounts it’s more likely the owner will be happy for getting it back.
More appreciative of your actions.

vas pup July 5, 2019 12:09 PM

Honesty is not the same in different cultures and circumstances: e.g. ISIS terrible folks/cold blooded killers usually pay in full for goods taking in small stores even they do have an opportunity not to do that.
And, as all respected bloggers stated multiple times on this blog, honesty is kind of reciprocity thing.
If frame of interaction set in such way that one side could be not honest (e.g. LEOs by SCOTUS decision)to you, but you (Jane/Joe) must be honest regradless(18 US 1001) to them, then honesty become one way street. One way street is not productive in any long term interaction regardless between people, corporations, countries, you name it because honesty, and as result trust and commitment could not sustain on such basis.

Jesse Thompson July 5, 2019 3:31 PM

Here are a couple of other confounding factors I haven’t yet heard mentioned.

  1. “Public and private institutions” imply CCTV in many places.

    You lost your wallet? Where? OK, let’s just pull up the security camera footage and….

  2. Small change in the wallet (especially <$1) suggests that wallet may have initially had more in it and then somebody snuck the cash out and left the wallet behind.

    What THAT means is that if you return said looted wallet, person will suspect that you’re the one who looted it.

    If people reason that out, that might force them to see the wallet as a toxic liability to avoid interacting with.

vas pup July 5, 2019 3:48 PM

@Jesse: “What THAT means is that if you return said looted wallet, person will suspect that you’re the one who looted it.

If people reason that out, that might force them to see the wallet as a toxic liability to avoid interacting with.”

That is very good point! Unfortunately, innocent person reported a crime or being accidently near crime scene become primary suspect for LEA.

E.g. late at night you are walking towards your home and see the person on the ground. You come close and take a look – there is knife in the chest.
At the same moment police cruiser move around and you are in the spot of its headlights. Sorry, but for them YOU are the main suspect now.

James July 5, 2019 4:11 PM

As some known philosopher (Dr. House) said: Everybody lies. It’s not that I have something to hide, it’s that I have things that I don’t want you to know.

B July 5, 2019 5:01 PM

Brain Games on Netflix had some interesting episodes on this.

In one experiment, they’d drop a wallet and it was immediately spotted. But when they put a red circle around it, everyone ignored it. In another, the waitress gave too much change back.

Interesting stuff…

Peter Shenkin July 5, 2019 6:44 PM

I have an a different explanation.

If there’s a lot of money, people think it might be a scam or a trap. They don’t want to get caught, so they turn it in. Then they get to feel virtuous as a small consolation prize. If it’s a small amount of money, they don’t think it could be a scam or trap. so they just keep it.

“Conscience: Fear that someone may be watching.” – Mencken.

TruePath July 5, 2019 7:05 PM

I think this is just about laziness. The study only used wallets with no credit cards or IDs just some business cards a grocery list and a key. The most money they used was ~$14 adjusted to local purchasing power, i.e. it was valued by locals about how we would value $14

In short the wallet without money was so worthless that I suspect lots of people just didn’t bother to return it and $14 (adjusted to local purchasing power) isn’t enough money to present a serious temptation.

Denton Scratch July 6, 2019 8:00 AM


I agree. I think the vast majority of people are honest and decent. But in a city of (say) 200,000, it takes only about 20 bicycle thieves to compel every cyclist to carry a heavy bike lock with them; and I reckon roughly the same number of burglars account for most burglaries.

I suspect that violent robbers such as muggers are scarcer still.

I make an exception for drug dealers – they face the threat of robbery with violence all the time, because it’s certain they won’t report the crime. Their only recourse is to employ an even meaner thug as a ‘minder’.

@Garrison T. Kahnemann

“The study shows most people have above average honesty.”

At first glance, that seems to make no sense. But it just means that the minority of people who engage in theft are sociopaths, who will steal at any opportunity, from anyone.

Billikin July 6, 2019 11:04 AM

The finding that people are more likely to return a wallet with more money in it does not surprise me, at least with the amounts involved. Empathy is a factor, OC, but not the only one. If I lost $5, people might think, it would not matter much, so returning the money would not matter much. OTOH, if I lost $50, it would matter, and so would returning the money. But suppose the wallet contained $500. Who carries that much cash around? Rich people. The person who found the money might think as follows. For a rich person, $500 is not a lot of money, they might not like losing a wallet with that much money in it, but it is not a big deal to them. But $500 is a lot of money to me. I could use it to pay rent or buy food. So I’ll just do that. Economists could get behind that argument. 😉

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